When it comes to preserving, maintaining and even repairing your brain's performance, mental exercise is just as critical as physical fitness and good nutrition. Researchers have found interesting links between memory and intellectually challenging activity.
- Get educated, stay challenged. Results from a study published in the October 2008 issue of Neurology found that the more education a person has, the better able she may be to fend off the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment (essentially impairment that’s beyond what’s normal for a person’s age). The same results were found when affected people had challenging jobs. So, is it that the challenge and education keeps the brain healthier or that a healthier brain is more likely to seek out higher education and a challenging job? Researchers don’t have an answer yet.
- Meditate. When regular meditators (people who spent between 10 and 90 minutes each day in deep concentration) had their brains scanned with a high-resolution MRI, the areas that regulate emotions were found to be significantly larger. To translate, the regular meditators were able to engage in more mindful behavior, which helps with concentration and memory.
In addition to a daily meditation (which need not be spent in a quiet room sitting with your legs crossed; 10 minutes of listening to calming classical music, and doing nothing else, also counts as a meditation), Michael McKee, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology and author of Stress and Your Body, And What to Do About It, says each day we should also utilize smaller periods of time to train our minds to slow the stress response. Essentially, allowing your body fewer opportunities to get into all-systems-alert mode means you shut down the stress-induced hormonal overload that directly impacts memory function.
- Play brain games. While online brain game sites like lumosity.com are a fun, engaging way to give your hippocampus a workout, don’t disregard the brain stimulation you get from a good old-fashioned knitting session, banging on the piano keys, reading a book, cooking a new recipe or doing a crossword puzzle. Learning something new can also be considered a brain game of sorts, because every time we challenge our brain with a new task, we create the opportunity for new neuron growth, which in turn keeps our brains in top working form. And a healthier brain means better memory.
- Socialize. Having strong social connections — being part of a book club, playing Bunco or golf or just meeting a friend for coffee each week — actually boosts your brain power.